We had some friends over the other night. After some small talk, we got into some serious discussions on several issues. One of them was civil disobedience. One of the guests said, “When do you think it’s right for Christians to engage in civil disobedience?” He clarified his question by noting that under the present federal administration, a number of bills are being passed or are on the table that may have very strong implications for believers. For example, one of the health care bills being debated in Congress is known as “America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009.” That’s the title that the authors gave to the bill.

It hasn’t passed Congress yet. The reason is not Republican resistance (since the Republicans are such a small minority in the Congress now, they really don’t have the numbers by themselves to stop any legislation), but Blue Dog Democrats who are deeply concerned about how the government will pay for all the legislation being passed.

Some of the issues that have come up regarding this current bill, however, are ethical more than economic. Ironically, it has taken outsiders to point out these issues to Congress because most representatives have not read the bill! Even President Obama admitted last week that he had not read the bill, even though he has been promoting it heavily.

It is also ironic that one of the major reasons for rising health care costs is the built-in cost of litigation, something that generally is viewed favorably by liberals, less favorably by conservatives. (One physician told me several years ago that, even though he had never been sued for malpractice, he had to pay $100,000 in lawsuit protection insurance annually.) So, in one respect, the reason the health care costs are rising so quickly is because of liberal judges. The health care problems thus are somewhat created by liberalism, and now a liberal health care plan is supposed to solve these problems? Isn’t that like having the fox watch the chicken coop?

Back to the ethical concerns. On pp. 425–26, the bill mentions mandatory counseling for the elderly. It says, among other things, that the counseling (from a health ‘practitioner’) will include “a continuum of end-of-life services… including palliative care and hospice, and benefits for such services…” This means that the counselor is required to tell the patient about the positive benefits of euthanasia. The details are not laid out in the bill, which should always make us nervous. Several analysts are reading this statement to mean that the elderly will be counseled on how to end their life sooner.

Some have likened this to Hitler’s Aktion T4 memo, which he wrote on the day that WWII broke out (September 1, 1939). In it, Hitler reportedly told physicians to kill those who were judged to be incurably sick. But is the current healthcare bill really that bad? After all, it doesn’t give physicians the right to kill the elderly, only to counsel them. Interestingly, the wording in Hitler’s Aktion T4 did not seem to give physicians that right either. It said, “Reich Leader Bouhler and Dr. Brandt are charged with the responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians, to be designated by name, to the end that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health, can be granted a mercy death.” This sounds as though the patient had the right to ask for euthanasia from the doctor, but not that the doctor had a mandate to take the life of the patient. Again interestingly, how this was played out was otherwise: almost 300,000 patients were killed under the authority of this memo, regardless of the patients’ wishes. Obviously, any comparisons made between the current situation, whatever it may be, and Hitler’s policies, needs to be nuanced carefully. I am not suggesting that the health care bill involves policies that are every bit as bad as Hitler’s euthanasia order. I am just making observations about the wording in both.

There’s another ethical problem in this bill for Christians: according to Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the bill uses tax-payer money to pay for abortions. Not only this, but it promotes abortions by requiring all insurance providers to contract with ‘essential community providers,’ such as Planned Parenthood (which aborted over 300,000 babies in 2007) claims to be.

These are disturbing trends. If this health care bill—or the one that will eventually end up on the President’s desk—include the euthanasia directives and funding for abortions, how should Christians respond? Is it time for civil disobedience? And, if so, what would that look like? Would it merely be a reaffirmation of the Tenth Amendment which gives States rights over the Federal Government (to date, several states have recently signed legislation that simply reasserts the Tenth Amendment because they see the Federal Government as usurping their Constitutionally-protected rights)? Would it merely be voting out of office any who voted for the health care bill (which would, technically, not really be civil disobedience)? Or would it be stronger action still? Would it include refusal to pay taxes if a portion of those taxes went to euthanasia counseling and abortions? Would it involve more than that? And if so, how do we reconcile this with the Lord’s teaching to ‘render to Caesar what is Caesar’s’? After all, the Roman taxes paid for the Roman army—the same army that was often very hostile (to put it mildly!) to Jews and Christians.

To be sure, some Christians think that overall the government is moving in the right direction. They argue that President Obama is enacting legislation that rights the wrongs of decades of social injustice. And they are tolerant of Roe, even arguing that although they would never abort a child, they have no problems supporting a government that does. Is this a legitimate viewpoint? At what point should such Christians say that the bad in the government policies outweigh the good?

The issues being raised here are complex. I suspect that very strong opinions on either side will come out in the comments section. Let the debate begin!

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    28 replies to "When is Civil Disobedience the Right Thing to Do?"

    • bethyada

      he had to pay $100,000 in lawsuit protection insurance annually.

      That is about 50 × more than what he would pay here annually.

      There’s another ethical problem in this bill for Christians: according to Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the bill uses tax-payer money to pay for abortions.

      This is common to many countries. My tax funds this and other immoral activities of the government. Though they enforce taxation so I don’t see myself as culpable. And even if I avoided income tax, I would still partially fund it through purchases as everything has sales tax.

      the bill mentions mandatory counseling for the elderly. It says, among other things, that the counseling (from a health ‘practitioner’) will include “a continuum of end-of-life services… including palliative care and hospice, and benefits for such services…”

      I am not certain this is a problem as it stands. Perhaps the mandatory nature of it. But I think people need to think more about their impending death, not less. The fact is that people get old and having a doctor attend you cannot postpone death forever. While resuscitation in accidental death may be successful, it seldom is at the end of life. If you can’t keep someone alive at the end of life, it is unlikely you will revive them after death. I think people need to think about end of life decisions before this and gain adequate understanding of what high intensity medicine really entails and the little it can actually do.

      Now could this be abused in the form of euthanasia? Perhaps, but then look at the hash job being done to your constitution. Abortion is defended as the right to privacy! Right to free speech is being used to promote all sorts of depravity whereas the concept of a open marketplace of ideas which is what it really means is condemned as offensive. I guess I don’t have a problem with those words but note that evil men don’t let good legislation stop them. Yes have good legislation, but it has its limits.

      I think your Nazi comments are relevant. People use the term as an insult based on what we know of their worst; but our (including mine) ignorance of history means we fail to see how it developed. The fact is that Hitler was very popular and he was into significant state control. It would be interesting to compare the ideologies. Here is one attempt

    • Jonathan

      “It says, among other things, that the counseling (from a health ‘practitioner’) will include “a continuum of end-of-life services… including palliative care and hospice, and benefits for such services…” This means that the counselor is required to tell the patient about the positive benefits of euthanasia.”

      Perhaps there is another part of the bill which refers to (or hints at) euthanasia, but “pallative care and hospice” is not it. Yes, pallative care (pain reduction) and hospice are care which is provided to ease the process of dying (when the goal of prolonging life is abandoned), but that’s hardly euthanasia.

      I have observed such care for both of my grandparents recently, and it certainly did not involve any active “encouragement” to die. It was simply a recognition that they had reached the end of their earthly lives, that further medical attempts at prolonging of their lives was very unlikely to be effective, and that their dying should be made as painless as possible.

      Perhaps people are fearing that this bill requires that the elderly be pressured into palliative/hospice care while there is still reasonable hope of recovery with additional treatment. That may or may not be a valid fear, but I don’t see what difference a law will make in that regard. Doctors who care about their patients and their families are already informing them of all the reasonable options they have for care. Doctors (or families) who just want their patients to die are already pressing them to go to hospice care. Doctors (or families) who think hope should never be given up are already steering their patients away from hospice care. I don’t think this law would change any of that.

    • Aaron

      I think the claim that this bill supports euthanasia is bogus: http://www.snopes.com/politics/medical/euthanasia.asp

    • Dani

      Even if you don’t think that these things are in the bill, (though I believe they are) look who our President has put in charge of policy for the future.
      The Czars and their power should scare everyone, as should the overwhelming evidence that this bill is not a solution, but an agenda.

    • Ray D

      Perhaps before we ask when civil disobedience is right we should ask if it is ever right. Many liberal Christians in our country have taken a pacifist view concerning world events. A far cry from the men who declared “We have no sovereign but God, and no King but Jesus”.

      American Christians are rapidly coming to the point where we will have to choose between “go along to get along” and Christ.

    • Daniel Eaton

      We discussed civil disobedience in some length on Theologica recently (bit.ly/QqkrH). Got quite heated. LOL But I disagree with the assertions about the current health care bill. We don’t have to rely on what someone says it contains. You can find the full text online (bit.ly/dm7Ls). It doesn’t even mention abortion, and the part of the “advance care planning consultations” are not mandated, only allowed/covered, and cover everything from DNRs to planning for long-term care. Any decision coming out of those consultations “may range from an indication for full treatment to an indication to limit some or all or specified interventions”. There is a lot wrong with this whole idea, but I don’t see it as an excuse to disobey the authorities God has placed over us.

    • Daniel B. Wallace

      Interesting points, folks. What I think, however, is missing in the analysis is that several good people have interpreted things differently. Further, the analogy with Hitler’s memo in which he did not mandate that doctors perform mercy killing is sobering indeed. Further, when the language is as vague as it is in this bill–a 1,018 pager no less!–it should give us pause. I don’t think we should be so naive as to think that ambiguous language won’t be used by some for evil purposes.

    • doulos tou theou

      When our Lord uttered the words to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, he was speaking of a Roman government that was certainly complicit in if not actively fostering immoral behaviors that (granted, given my subjectivity) were very likely much worse than the current health care bill.

      Civil disobedience only makes sense in regards to one’s personal actions — if the government tells me to perform an abortion or directly aid in it, I cannot in good conscience comply. To say that we mightn’t pay taxes I think definitely falls on the wrong side of the New Testament evidence.

      If Christians take too extreme a stance on civil disobedience, they run the risk of obliterating all semblance of honoring one’s government. Any bill written by fallible individuals and of the length of a modern piece of legislation is very likely to contain actions which either condone or could potentially increase the likelihood of immoral activity.

    • Stuart

      I’m not sure this exactly puts bullets in the euthanasia gun. I suppose it could be abused for such purposes, though I imagine people who sought to use it with that in mind would meet some legal opposition.

      As far as the abortion issue goes, I am under the impression our government is already in the business of funding it. However, I don’t think the misappropriation of (yet more) funds is a green light for us to all become turncoats. Corrupt authorities are still authorities. Refusing to recognize that status is tantamount to disobeying God. Our only allowance for our own disobedience is when obedience would mean committing sin (paying taxes and the gov’t misusing it is much like hiring a carpenter who uses the money for illegal and/or sinful activity; we are not responsible for their wrong decisions). Furthermore, when we disobey, we remain submissive (accepting punishment, for instance).

      Often I feel people adopt an ends-justify-the-means attitude (or, “But it’s not fair”) regarding civil disobedience that I feel is inappropriate.

      Regarding universal health care in general (not just this particular bill) as well as a slew of other social services, my biggest issue is that I don’t think it was ever meant to be the government’s job. Oh the inefficient inefficiencies of the bloated bureaucracy. Tail wagging the dog. Liberty and justice only, please. Mercy is an individual enterprise, and when the government gets in the business, it does so at the expense of fairness. It is not in the position (well, I guess, unfortunately it is) to make sacrifices on behalf of individuals against their wills.

    • rayner markley

      Yes, we individuals should consider beforehand how we spend our last days, but it’s no business of the government to counsel us on that. Traditionally, we Americans achieve dignity by taking care of ourselves.

      Judging from the title of the bill and what I’ve heard so far, I see the government’s purpose is to reduce health care costs so that it can provide the same care to everyone. So, sure, they can reduce costs by reducing health care itself, and at the expense of the elderly and terminally ill. I can’t help but think of that same utilitarian sense exemplified in the movie ‘Soylent Green’ (based on a story called ‘Make Room, Make Room’).

      As a last resort, opponents can always be conscientious objectors. That could work for avoiding actions, but it has never worked in regard to paying taxes.

    • Mark Begemann

      i’m hesitant to recommend civil disobedience until the point at which the law forces you to break the Law.

    • Mason

      “Many liberal Christians in our country have taken a pacifist view concerning world events. A far cry from the men who declared “We have no sovereign but God, and no King but Jesus”.”

      Insofar as pacifism goes I find it an odd argument to say it is somehow a step away from embracing Jesus as King.

      Jesus said it was a defining mark of his followers that they were not using force to save their king when he was on trial.

      And for three hundred years the early Christians were persecuted and killed for resisting the false religion and the warmongering of Rome, preferring death to joining the Roman legion and killing the ‘enemies of Rome’.

    • Mason

      Also, if we want to make the “this isn’t the role of the government” argument for healthcare it ought to apply to building roads, education, the space program, and a host of other massive and important roles we entrust them with that may not have been in their charter at first.

    • cheryl u


      I see a lot of difference between the governmert being involved in the building of roads for instance, and health care. In the first place, it is very obvious that no individual person could not build roads on there own. However, I think the most important difference is that with government health care, the most private choices and decisions a person makes–the care of their own bodies–is going to be in one extent or another dictated by the federal government. If that happens by the government telling us what treatments they will or will not pay for, or in a worst case scenario, the euthanasia of the elderly or feeble, this is still a very personal and private area that I don’t think any one else has the right to dictate to us in. (Don’t anyone take that to read that I ever would support euthanasia, please!)

    • Mason

      I understand where you’re coming from, but I would point out that what you don’t want the government to decide for you is exactly what insurance companies decide now.
      And I’m not convinced that corporations have our best interests in mind, it’s all about profits.
      For all the effort people go through to collect horror stories from Canada and the UK there are plenty of horror stories here of the insurance companies making choices for people or cutting off coverage when it’s no longer in their best interests.

      The euthanasia part (which I’m not advocating either) seems to be more of a fear than an actual reality in this bill when you get right down to it. But even with abortion, I oppose it but people can already choose it now so voting for this plan won’t make a difference there.

    • rayner markley

      The private insurance industry is private. People can seek a second opinion elsewhere, or can pay for their own care. How would one get a second opinion from the government?

      I see the big drawback of this plan to be that it makes people permanently dependent on the government. That’s opposite from the direction we should be going and opposite from our traditional ideals.

    • Ray D


      I was not and would never advocate proclaiming the Gospel with a gun as you infer. I do however have a serious problem with a government that would make me complacent in the murder of innocent babies and the elderly.

      As to your second post, things such as roads are for the use and benefit of the population as a whole. Although I am required by God to give you shirt off my back, I should not demand government take from some to meet the individual needs of others. I am only steward of what God has given me. I am not the steward of another man’s property. That is between him and God.

    • cheryl u


      Rayner said, “The private insurance industry is private. People can seek a second opinion elsewhere, or can pay for their own care. How would one get a second opinion from the government?”

      That is basically what I was going to say to you in reply to your comment to me. He just beat me to it! That is the precise problem that I see–if the government is doing it and making the mandates, there is no way around it. We are stuck with it royally with no recourse available. Maybe the bills being considered at this point aren’t quite that drastic, but so help me, they are certainly a step in that direction. How long until it becomes that way if it doesn’t right now?

      Besides, we all know how very efficeint (sarcasm intended) most government programs end up being. What in the world makes us think they can do this any better than private industry can???

    • Stuart

      @13-I am not a fan of most of those government initiatives either.

      Roads are one of the ones where I’m hesitant to call the government off. However, recently there have been some neat developments with private companies running roads in high traffic areas (and much more efficiently and profitably).

    • Jim W.

      Mr. Wallace,

      I think the similarities (in ambiguous language) between Hitler’s diktat and the current health-care bill are not as significant as you suggest. In Nazi Germany, any diktat from Hitler was the law and only depended upon his own interpretation. In fact, sometimes he promulgated “laws” or proclamations for foreign consumption or propaganda and not really for internal use. The Nazi judiciary was totally subject to the Fuhrer’s determination on judicial matters. As such, it really didn’t matter that much if the diktat was ambiguous, clarification would be sought from the governing bueracracy or Hitler himself and then carried out according to his wishes.

      In the US the rule of law and an independent judiciary make ambiguous language in a bill subject to a judicial review process. Therefore, it is much more likely that in the implementation of the law the application of the law will be ironed out. While the result of that review process may be detrimental as far as Christians are concerned, the process itself will at least give the public an opportunity to engage in a debate over the specific application of the law. This is something that was never allowed in Nazi Germany.

    • Daniel B. Wallace

      Jim W., I think that’s an excellent point. Just to clarify: I’m not suggesting any view, nor am I espousing any view. Rather, I’m just pointing to some issues, parallels (whether real or imagined), and ethical concerns that might crop up.

      But as to parallels, two other things need to be aired here: in spite of our judicial review process, a number of things have slipped through the cracks. Typically, federal laws are put in place unless and until someone can bring a valid complaint to the Supreme Court (or an appellate court). But there are hundreds of laws on the books that many would say are a violation of the Constitution, yet the court system has ignored any requests (if they even came forward) to review them. It’s no wonder that several states have symbolically passed legislation affirming the tenth amendment. This would not be necessary IF the federal government were acting within its limits, as far as these state legislatures are concerned.

      Second, Hitler’s memo was secret. Although he had sovereignty over Germany, one wonders why he would make this memo a secret document. Perhaps he even knew that he was taking things farther than would be allowed if the public knew. Yet the wording of this secret document doesn’t explicitly mandate euthanasia. So, why did the German doctors go that far?

    • Rex

      Dr. Wallace,

      In regard to whether civil disobedience is ever o.k., I often struggle with what I call my “perceived difference between the politics of Jesus and Paul.” Jesus seems to be pretty neutral to governing authorities. I am not sure I would say that Jesus was ever insubordinate to governing authorities, but he just doesn’t seem to think they’re a big deal. He’s not at all impressed with them.
      Paul, on the other hand, has a very clear expectation that Christians should be in subordination to the governing authorities. There is little wiggle room for civil disobedience in Paul. Do you have any insight to offer my “perceived difference”?


    • Daniel B. Wallace

      Rex, those are some good insights, but I think that they need a bit of nuancing. I think there are some ways to look at this in terms of trajectories. Jesus’ aphorism, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” forms the fundamental principle for Christians. In principle, this surely means that we must not give to Caesar what is due to God alone; thus, Jesus was not at all subordinate to the governing authorities when such subordination interfered with his devotion to God. He refused to give an answer to Pilate and spoke pretty defiantly to the Sanhedrin, for starters. And he condemned the religio-political leaders of his day in many ways.

      As for Paul, he spoke about submission to the government (e.g., Rom 13), but there was an implicit understanding that this would not be in everything. For example, Paul was strongly against the Imperial cult of doing obeisance to the emperor. His message to the Romans shows this: he spoke of the gospel frequently in this letter (57 of the NT’s 73 instances of ‘gospel’ occur in Paul’s letters, with 9 of them in Romans, the most of any of his letters). The word ‘gospel’ had strong imperial connotations, referring to the accession to the throne by a new emperor, his birth, etc. Paul says that the real gospel is about Jesus Christ, and that he is the one who is worthy of worship rather than the emperor. Thus, there is the implicit resistance to any authority that tries to tell Christians whom they should worship, to whom they should offer their greatest allegiance.

    • Jim W.

      Dr. Wallace,

      In response to your question “Why did the German doctors go that far?” (i.e., killing the “incurable” without their consent).

      They did so because they knew that was the policy that Hitler wanted. There is a very detailed article on Wikipedia on the Nazi Euthanasia program which gives the main highlights.


      It is clear from Hitler’s discussions with the people in charge of the program that this is what he wanted and it is entirely consistent with his racial and totalitarian ideology as he proclaimed it. The doctors did not come up with the application of the memo on their own. Again, this is why I don’t think the memo is a good parallel or analogy with the health-care bill. The social and political context of the two documents is different.

    • Rex

      Dr. Wallace,

      Thanks for the clarity. It seems then that Jesus and Paul agreed that civil disobedience is appropriate in instances that asked believers to compromise their allegiance to God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
      So here is a question: Is government use of tax-payer money to pay for abortion a point in which the believer is asked to compromise the his/her devotion to God and/or the gospel of Jesus Christ? I guess we need to define what we mean by “devotion” and “the gospel.” Thoughts?


    • Daniel B. Wallace

      Rex, several people have commented on this, and have suggested (rightly, I think) that paying taxes is not something that Christians can really get out of. The Roman government wasn’t entirely guilt-free, but Paul didn’t suggest that believers could stop paying taxes.

      Jim W., I think you may be referring to the head doctors, but I was asking the question about the rank and file. And for them, your statement is not true. An article in Wikipedia is not really the best source of information on the Nazi doctors. A far better source is Robert Jay Lifton’s book, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (a book that is actually cited in the Wikipedia article, though only the first edition of 1986 rather than the later second edition). Lifton wrestles with the question how these Nazi doctors, who had agreed to the Hippocratic oath, came to view genocide and euthanasia as something that was compatible with the Hippocratic oath. But that’s exactly his point: they DID come to that conclusion. It wasn’t Hitler’s mandate (whether written or oral) that alone, or even primarily, got the physicians to commit murder. Nevertheless, you raise a significant point that Hitler’s memo is not the same as HR 3200 as far as euthanasia is concerned. I certainly hope you’re right, but I have my doubts.

    • Josh Mann

      I think it is essentially to understand the context surrounding NT commands for civil obedience first. For example, what abuses did Peter anticipate his audience might suffer while remaining submissive? I’ve attempted to respond to the question of civil submission in the American context based on an exegetical understanding of 1 Pet 2 here.

    • Pantman


      I asked this on Josh’s site, but I’d be interested on your take on this:

      “But surely the crux of civil disobedience is not the speaking out or otherwise against a regime, rather it is the breaking of the law.

      My question would be this: when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus in 1955 (and lets presume such WAS illegal rather than debate the specifics of the driver’s request), was it is sin? If the law was broken and she refused to submit to the authorities in that matter, did she sin?

      If not, why not? What were the factors making her civil disobedience unsinful?”

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